Some Ideas Regarding Sibling Relationships

I had such a lovely response from all of you mothers from this post:, which was generated by Chapter Four “Kids Versus Kids” in our chapter by chapter look at the book, “Love And Anger:  The Parental Dilemma”.

I have talked to many mothers locally and on-line regarding sibling relationships.  It is all well and good to know that siblings fight, many mothers say, but what do you do when the behaviors children display between one another are literally tearing the family fabric apart or worse yet, driving a wedge between spouses or partners?

These are my personal ideas; I guess I view things differently than many of the parenting books.  These ideas may or absolutely may not work in your family and they may not resonate with you in the least possible way.  Every child, every sibling relationship and every family is different.  I will some words about the blended family in just a moment, so if you are in that situation, then please bear with me.

To me, name-calling, teasing, fighting, and those kinds of behaviors all have pretty strong limits in my home because I find it hard to function in  an environment that is not kind.  It frustrates me pretty quickly, and so for me, I had to set boundaries on it.  I expect my children to treat each other kindly and if they don’t rise up to the occasion, I expect them to rectify the situation.  I have hammered into their heads (not Waldorf at all by a longshot! LOL) that friends will come and go, but siblings are forever and whilst it is the job of a mother and father as parents to take care of all of their children, siblings also take care of each other because that is what families do.  I also expect the children that are older to have tolerance and treat the younger children kindly and protectively, especially if that younger child is under the age of 7.  However, I also expect the younger children to be able to respect the boundaries an older child may need on spending time alone or with friends his or her own age.

My main response to situations  where feelings are hurt, names are said, physical things is simple redirection, work and reminders and looking carefully at over-stimulation, hunger, sleep, or if the child really needs to get some physical energy out. 

But, if these behaviors persist, my thoughts (and again, these absolutely may not work for your family so take what resonates with you!)  go in this pattern (and this would work more for situations where one child is over 7 and the other siblings are smaller, or perhaps situations where one is a teen and the others are smaller):

1.  The children must need more structure and work on my part.  Busy children are too busy to fight out of boredom and such (obviously this does NOT apply well to a three year old and a baby or a five year old and a toddler!). 

2.  If you are ugly in the house, we cannot take that outside the home, so any playdate or fun thing for the afternoon is gone.  We can’t take that ugly out into the world with our friends!

3.  Or I may be thinking they have not acted in a way where I want to go with other children in the afternoon, but maybe they need to come with me and go hiking or go sit by  stream and just be.  Sometimes that can soothe the hardest of days.

4.  I think about who may need one on one time with either me or my husband, and I also think about if they need something separate for themselves. I have really seen my nine year old spend time with a special close friend just themselves, no younger siblings about, and be really just so satisfied to be able to play an uninterrupted game on their level.  I can’t always make it happen frequently, but I do try when I see the need for that!

5.   If you have children nine and above along with children smaller than age 9, one thing I have seen other families use is to set up social times where both children have a playmate to play with.  ie, the nine year old of the house would have a nine year old over to play, and the six year old of the house would have a six year old to play.  I think this can also work well with smaller siblings when you have teens in the house and the smaller siblings are just hanging around with nothing to do and wanting to be with the teen.  There needs to be time together as a FAMILY, but it is also important, especially I think if you have a smaller family of only two or three children all spaced out, for children over the age of 9 to have time with peers of the same age without younger siblings.  It can also be fun if you have a bigger family to mainly have social time with other bigger families where everyone can be together or pair off…This is one of those areas I think you will find your own way based on your own family.  But I do caution against expecting your teenager to want to include your five year old, and that if your five-year-old is the only other child in the house, then you may need to have a project for that five-year-old and take charge of that time so things go smoothly.

6. Restitution.  If you hit each other, then your hands will work for each other. If you are four and you hit the baby, I will redirect those hands into work but also into doing something positive with your hands for the baby.  And then I will do my part to make sure the baby is in a sling or something so you don’t have to control yourself all day long, but only in bits and pieces.  If you are over 7 and using your mouth to tease your younger siblings, you must need to do something for that sibling to show love because in this family we love each other.

7.  So more DOING, less WORDS.  What I just outlined is my thought process, not necessarily what I would say to my children.

A special note for my blended families:   I think it all starts with you and your partner.  You must talk about these issues ahead of time and have agreed-upon ways to handle things.  You must get very, very clear TOGETHER what behaviors you both accept and what you will not. I have some blended families really benefit from counseling to go through this process, because otherwise they can get in a situation where they are just going around and around about his child and her child and not much action is getting accomplished.  In the end, it is about creating a NEW family.  Attachment Parenting International recommends Imago therapists:  I would love my blended families to chime in here!  I think having a blended family requires the parents to really be a united front, to really think things through, to work with compromise as well.  What has been your experience?

Lastly, I found this decent handout regarding sibling conflict from University of Iowa, and I think it brings up good points about siblings in general, although the wordiness of the techniques I would not use with children under the age of 7.  It also brings up things about sibling abuse, which is something no one seems to talk about:

Many blessings, hope that helps and again, take what resonates with you and your family.


15 thoughts on “Some Ideas Regarding Sibling Relationships

  1. Could you give some more specific examples of #6, restitution? We have this issue in our house (my kids are 4 and 2) and they frequently will hit, pull hair or other things like this. I like your suggestions a lot but what are some concrete examples of what they would have to do with their hands?
    And what about biting? My youngest has just started biting her sister on occasion.

    Thank you!

    • Stephanie – At four and two, restitution is more something you model and they help. However, I have to say, at those small ages, much of what should be going on is outside time and physical work in the house. Can the two year old go on your back and your four year old help you cook, clean, make bread, wash things, work in the garden? Your four year old needs jobs and prevention and the children may very well need you right there when they are not working and playing. THe restitution you model is fixing boo- boos, the “That hurt” and holding the one who got hurt, the smoothing of hair with gentle hands, the magical water or gel that comes out for the hurt, the taking the child who hit or such and reminding the child, Strong hands don’t hit, come we must chop carrots for lunch. It literally is sitting down and thinking through your day and what your children can do to take part in that work.
      I have several back posts involving biting, you could try putting biting in the search engine box and see what comes up..
      Does any of that help or resonate with you? If you do something to help fix things and model it, and let your children take part in it – brushing the hair that was pulled, having the child apply the special and magical ointment to what was hurt, helping to fix the toy that was broken, it really helps..But prevention is key!
      Many blessings,

  2. I really loved this post… having a nine and six year old a lot of your ideas would really work for us. I am noticing that the longer they are home together (We just started homeschooling both last year) the better they get along. It is such a blessing! Of course, they have their moments, and your idea of one on one time and a playdate with someone their own age is great, too!

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I think the main problem is two-fold:

    1. This stuff happens when I am busy trying to “get stuff done” when it’s probably a sign I should drop what I am doing and spend more engaged time with them. I work full time so they don’t get to spend as much time with me as they would like and I feel they probably need. This stuff also happens when I am there in the room with them but not actively engaged.

    2. I haven’t known how to best handle when small things happen between them. Originally, I ignored it as I felt they should learn to resolve things on their own plus I felt they were getting the attention they wanted through a not-ok means. But upon more reflection, I decided they are too young for this and do need me to redirect and mitigate. The soothing aspect I have also been unsure about. While the one who gets hurt gets soothed, I also think they play this up quite a bit even when they are not really hurt in the typically sibling rivalry way. So I am reluctant to overdo it on soothing them in this respect (unless of course someone is really hurt). I like the solution that the other sibling should help soothe- I think that’s a great suggestion.

    As a final note, I love your blog even though I may not be your typical demographic (not Christian, do not homeschool or follow Waldorf). And despite all that, I find it really relevant and helpful, even the stuff about faith!

    • Stephanie – I love, love, love all the mothers who come to this space. I find all of you supportive of each other, and I am so glad you are here. 🙂 We are all here to gleam what we can to make our own family lives go more smoothly!
      I love what you said about realizing they really are too young to work it out themselves – they really are at this point. Once they stand more in their independence, around 9, they have a greater ability to try to problem solve. I agree with you on not overdoing anything, especially soothing unless someone is really hurt – I think work, work, your work they can join in, keep the flow to the day moving with a good structure between that inbreath and outbreath…to me, many of the challenges of the small child are rhythm related more than anything..Am I holding the space enough? Am I involving them in my work? Do I have a structure and flow to the day? Getting their energy out?
      More thoughts,

  4. Carrie, Thanks for all these posts on sibling rivalry. I am blessed to have two boys that truly seem to love eachother and have really never been mean or even angry with eachother (they are 7, 3.5 and 8 mos). For those that haven’t made their family yet, I think having a gap of at least 3 years between kids really helps reduce sibling rivalry. Each child has a turn to be the baby and a separate place in the family.

    I wanted to share what I do to keep the peace. According to G. Neufeld, aggression stems from frustration. I teach them to call for help the minute they get a tiny bit frustrated. Then I am PRESENT while they talk to each other one at a time (whoever calls for help talks first). It takes less than a minute to solve every squabble – as soon as they start to talk to each other they forget they were upset and want to start the play again right away.

    Finally, I try not to be fair all the time. I intentionally do different things for and with each of them and stress they are different. We try to spend time alone with each of them every day, even if it is a fifteen minute card game or knitting or something.

  5. How do you make the idea of restitution work when for one child, at least, it becomes a way to keep score? We recently tried an idea I had heard from a mother of a large family where any time one person in the family used physical aggression against another (i.e hitting, etc.), that person had to do one of the chores assigned to the person who had been hurt. What ended up happening is that my younger child was the one who ended up doing her older brother’s chores all the time. He was able to control himself and not hit when he had a significant motivation (like having to do a chore!), but she could not, and also can’t reason enough to foresee that kind of a consequence. And then the older child started counting each time she would transgress the rule and was constantly saying, “She owes me a chore!” Dh and I were quickly sick of it and stopped that. I love the idea of restitution–I think it’s exactly what should happen! But exactly how to carry it out without it becoming fodder for tattle-taling is what has me curious.

    Also in response to the comment above about age gaps, my children are four years apart and it doesn’t seem to have cut down on the sibling rivalry at all.

    I do love all these ideas!

    • Lisa! Ha! I can TOTALLY see that happening! That is why I think restitution should be the smaller child helping you do something small to help if possible and/or you taking them by the hand and having them do work with you, not so much as a punishment but as a job and a way to keep busy and from antagonizing each other :), but I also think try all measures to prevent first! Because you are absolutely right, when you have one under the age of 7 the expectation may be way too high. A four year old and a six year old IS going to hit when they are frustrated. Absolutely!
      Great observations!

    • Lisa – The other thing I thought is that with small children I think having them come by you when they hit and involving them in your work is most important. I have quite a few posts about that in the four year old posts…
      I hope that helps,

  6. Very timely for us as we muddle through a new rhythm with a newborn and a 3.5 year old! I’m figuring out how to meet everyone’s needs, especially with a VERY colicky newborn… and can see frustration bloom into aggression with my three year old, who miraculously is not aggressive towards baby when she cries so much, but towards me.

    We’re really trying to strengthen our rhythms and make sure we’re being patient to help her! Thanks for the tips about restitution… we need to do more of that.

    I think it’s hard to remember to use less words and act more when you have such a verbal three year old… sometimes I forget that she’s really still a baby and doesn’t have the EMOTIONAL capacity to deal with the words I’m giving her. I’m wondering if anyone else struggles with keeping your child’s development in mind when they’re verbally advanced.

    • Kendra- It is really, really important to use music, singing, pictorial imagery with all small children,but I think especially those really, really verbal first born little girls. I have written about this before somewhere on this blog…They honestly do not understand all that you are saying, and they will not even remember in several years and once their vocabulary expands even more, you will realize they actually understood a whole lot less than you thought! I am proud of you for recognizing this because so many parents don’t. Three is tiny, tiny, tiny.
      Many blessings,

  7. I’m sorry but I’m laughing out loud here at Lisa’s post, this is sort of what’s going on here – our oldest is 8.5 and middle child is 3, and it’s amazing to see the sly ways my oldest can make his brother lose it. Sigh. My husband and I are both the eldest children in our families so we know how it works though 😉

    I just wanted to add that with a larger age gap like with my boys I’ve found that as much as the younger one desperately wants to play with the older, they have a difficult time sometimes. I engage them in work and keep them as busy as I can, but the best times come when they do something together. That is when restitution and bonding truly happens between them. I would love more ideas on how to facilitate that, whether through “organized” projects like me requesting they do a certain task or activity or other games or activities they can do together.

    Oh, and it’s interesting seeing how 8-yo is the protective knight in shining armor of his younger brother if anyone else picks on 3-yo, but if it’s just the two of them that’s an entirely different story!

  8. A great topic to discuss. I was very pleased to see a comment about sibling abuse – no one does seem to pay much attention to it. I find it amazing (but not in a good way) that parents accept behaviour between siblings that they would not accept if it involved a third party. For example, most would intervene in a flash if another child came up to our son or daughter in the park and snatched their toy away, hit them or teased them, yet similar behaviour between siblings seems tolerated with an attutude of “they’ll sort it out”. Why is this?

  9. I am finding this post and the readers’ comments quite helpful today. I try to involve my boys in my household work as much as I can. This goes very well but I can’t keep it up all day. I am struggling with my 3year-old. Often throughout the day (it feels like all day) he pushes his little brother (13months) down. I understand that he doesn’t always want his brother close, touching his toys or following him. When they try to play together the older one gets a bit too aggressive too. My initial feelings are anger which I’m working on. I noticed today that I’m constantly telling my older son not to push his brother, stop being mean, how would do you think your brother feels, use gentle hands… I am desparate for some advice.

    • Hi Meaghan,
      I think the first place to start is a two fold place (after you take a deep breath!LOL). I think you must go have a peek at the three year old posts and develop in your mind a really good picture of the three year old and how they respond and what tools to use: singing, taking them by the hand, rhythm, re-direction, lots of physical activity. Three year olds in general need a whole lot less words and a whole lot more action. With these ages, I would think about separation with putting your 13 month old in a sling and engaging your three year old in meaningful work. Honestly, I wouldn’t focus as much on the negative but on the positive. At age three, he cannot control his body yet, and doesn’t have the speech in the moment to use the words…that comes with maturity. To be completely honest, I think it is wonderful you noticed the amount of words you are using! That in itself is a big step, and often we do realize what we are saying is ineffectual in discipline… Telling him to stop being mean (too vague, no concrete action he can follow through with that is positive), how do you think your brother feels (cannot put himself in someone else’s shoes yet), use gentle hands (better, but still needs constructive and physical work to do with those hands ,the “how” to be gentle or helpful).. Try the three old posts in the development section; also try this one: and this one:

      I hope that helps, give yourself a big hug! Three is a challenging age in that parenting shifts, and often different tools are needed. Meaningful work, as you mentioned, is a major part of this, as is intense physical activity outside.
      You are doing great, and you are growing as parent… This is an opportunity for growth and for practicing the tools and mindset that will serve you well in the later years of parenting. 🙂 I think a spiritual path is also a big part of our own grounding and work, you may consider checking out Melisa Nielsen’s Be A Beacon program if you have no spiritual path currently or you would like some further ideas of personal development: I would also recommend Melisa’s list if you are not on it,

      Many blessings,

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